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  • Radical Education in Aurora Leigh
  • Sheila Cordner (bio)

Nineteenth-century advocates of education for women often turned to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “novel-poem” Aurora Leigh (1856) for inspiration. Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, instrumental in the founding of Girton College, uses a substantial quotation from Aurora Leigh as an epigraph to her 1857 essay “Women and Work” and Clara Collet’s 1890 essay “The Economic Position of Educated Working Women” begins with a long passage from the poem.1 Reformers such as Bodichon and Collet who use Aurora Leigh to support their arguments for women’s education remind us that Barrett Browning’s poem was as important for its educational ideas as for its innovations in poetic form. Despite the interest that her pedagogical insights sparked in the nineteenth century, however, no full study exists of Barrett Browning’s important contribution to educational debates.2 A recurrent tension in Barrett Browning scholarship stems from the fact that it urges us to think about her either as a reformer or as a gifted poet.3 Exploring her educational project in Aurora Leigh allows us to see how her roles as reformer and innovative poet inform each other. By emphasizing the visceral and affective qualities of her poetry, Barrett Browning engages her readers empathically in her vision for reform, teaching us how to read her text.

Barrett Browning goes further than many other nineteenth-century advocates of women’s education by criticizing dominant pedagogies for both elite and working classes and by proposing a new experiential form of education grounded in what she describes as “headlong” reading (i.707).4 Instead of pitting experiential education against book learning, as Romantic writers such as William Wordsworth and Jean-Jacques Rousseau often did, Barrett Browning’s educational model emphasizes a kind of experiential approach to texts that is embodied in headlong reading. Reading becomes not just cerebral but also bodily and emotional, as she shows by using images such as pulsation associated with spasmodic poetry.5 “It is rather when / We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong” into books, Aurora says, that we gain the most from reading (1.705–07). Barrett Browning’s headlong reading requires readers to immerse themselves emotionally and viscerally in texts, remaining open to new meaning that might emerge instead of searching for one predetermined, “right” reading. Moreover, openness to texts leads to an openness—an empathy—for others. When Aurora feels texts “puls[ing]” and “beat[ing]” within her, she reads “for hope” instead [End Page 233] of reading to memorize facts as her Oxbridge-educated cousin Romney does (1.896, 841, 730). Barrett Browning places headlong reading at the heart of her educational model intended for women of different classes. She suggests that poetry’s physiological aspects, such as those Jason Rudy discusses, should be experienced by all classes. “Poetry in the spasmodic model,” Rudy writes, “seems no longer limited to an elite few but is directed instead to the human body and universal experiences” (80). Barrett Browning links privileged-class Aurora’s headlong reading with her empathy for the working-class character Marian, who educates herself while “tramp[ing]” when the “pedlar” “would toss her down / Some stray odd volume from his heavy pack” (3.948, 969, 972–73). Aurora can recognize Marian’s intellectual curiosity, because her education has taught her more than facts. She can adapt her knowledge to new situations and connect with someone of a lower class.

Despite Aurora’s and Marian’s similar approaches to reading, however, Barrett Browning acknowledges that their class determines these two women’s access to education. Marian lacks the intellectual framework that Aurora takes for granted. She remains “not in earshot of the things / Out-spoken o’er the heads of common men / By men who are uncommon” (3.1000–02). Barrett Browning confronts this class disparity, urging us not to dismiss it as insurmountable. By depicting the possibilities—and limitations—for Marian and Aurora to adapt comparable educational models, Barrett Browning explores the educational possibilities for students from the working classes.

When Barrett Browning wrote Aurora Leigh in the 1850s, people of Marian’s class were gaining increased access to education. Mass...


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pp. 233-249
Launched on MUSE
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